Humor and Translation: Translation and Empire

Translation and Empire
By Mark Herman

The subject of diplomatic language has come up several times in this column, including the fact that accurate translation or interpreting is often not wanted. For example, in the column for February 2001, Bernard Lewis, Emeritus Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, was quoted as saying that those who translated and interpreted for the Turkish empire dared not “deliver any unpalatable message honestly.” Elizabeth of England’s “sincera amicizia,” from an official intermediate Italian translation, was not sufficiently sycophantic, and so the translators turned it into a demonstration of “her subservience and devotion” and her declaration of “servitude and attachment” to the Ottoman Sultan.It would seem that such fawning is still required by some rulers today.

Whether or not Donald Trump is one may be open to debate. Less debatable is the fact that he sometimes indulges in very undiplomatic language, including his widely reported reference to Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations as “shithole countries.” Unfortunately for those who would sanitize his language in translation, English, including English expletives, are too well known worldwide, and news travels far too fast, for any such sanitization to occur. Nonetheless, there is still the problem of translating “shithole.” According to ATA Newsbriefs (January 17, 2018), quoting an article by Samantha Schmidt in the Washington Post:2

Every culture has its profanities, to be sure, but they do not always translate well. The main daily newspapers in El Salvador, one of the countries mentioned by Trump, went with the translation agujeros de mierda, [meaning “holes of shit,” similar to agujero de hombre, “manhole”]. . . .

Some foreign news outlets . . . [ignored] the word “hole.” Most French media went with the phrase pays de merde, which essentially means “shitty countries.” . . . In Finnish, one translation of the phrase was persläpimaat, which literally means “asshole countries.”

No doubt the Ottoman Sultan is spinning in his grave.

Translating diplomatic language, and the words of Donald Trump in particular, are two of the topics included in the multi-article “Translation and Empire/s” section of the Summer 2017 issue of the British journal In Other Words. In an editorial, Thomas Bunstead and Samantha Schnee lament the task facing Bérengère Viennot, who translates Trump for French media outlets. Viennot is quoted:

What am I to do? Translate Trump as he speaks, and let French readers struggle with whatever content there is? (Not to mention the fact that I will be judged on the vocabulary I choose–sometimes the translator is blamed for the poor quality of a piece.) Or keep the content, but smooth out the style, so that it is a little bit more intelligible, leading non-English speakers to believe that Trump is an ordinary politician who speaks properly–when this is obviously not the case?3

Another topic discussed in “Translation and Empire/s,” by the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o,is the dominance of the language of colonizers over that of the colonized, sometimes to a ludicrous extent:

I have faced everything from hostility to polite applause at the possibility [of writing in African languages rather than in English, French, or Portuguese] but no real change in practice. I’ve even seen African and international organisations give prizes to promote African literature on the condition that Africans don’t do it in an African language. . . . And yet the prizes are there to promote African literature and African writers. (13)

The problem is not confined to Africa:

[W]henever one people has conquered another they always impose their language on the subjugated. The English did it to the Irish. I might also add the Scots and the Welsh. The Japanese, during the colonial occupation of Korea, 1910-1945, . . . imposed the Japanese language and names on the Koreans. Native Americans, as well as natives of Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, similarly lost out to the dominant English or Spanish. Hawaiians lost their language when they were incorporated into the mainland United States of America (15)

However, writing in an indigenous African language can be dangerous, even fatal, in a society where actual or perceived slights of those in power is a crime:

The first work in Gĩkũyũ proper was actually the play, Ngaahika Ndeenda  /  I Will Marry When I Want. That sent me to a maximum security prison. With the second, Devil on the Cross, the publisher lost his finger. With the third, the hero is almost arrested except for the fact he is fictional. On the occasion of the fourth one, my wife and I nearly lost our lives. (11)

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o now lives in exile in California.

A second article in “Translation and Empire/s” speaks of various African translation initiatives.Unfortunately, most involve French-to-English or vice versa. One project that did involve African languages, the translation of the short story by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, The Upright Revolution, originally written in Gĩkũyũ, into more than 30 African languages, faced many challenges:

[P]rofessional translators were very often unavailable in the African languages they wanted to have represented, and so many translations were crafted by new translators who were passionate about their own language but who may not have even seen a literary text published in the language before. If finding translators was hard, getting translations commissioned on goodwill, delivered to deadline, and then sourcing qualified editors and proofreaders was even harder. (23-24)

And, consistent with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s exile status:

while the [translation project] was covered by mainstream media outlets in the U.K., France, and India, . . . no Kenyan newspapers ran the story. (24)

As for classical empires, Julietta Steinhauer tells what happened when a foreign invader, the Macedonian Alexander the Great, conquered ancient Egypt in 332 BCE.After Alexander’s death, the Macedonian general Ptolemy was made governor of Egypt, proclaiming himself Pharaoh in 305 BCE.

[T]he new ruler was keen to appeal to all his subjects, whether Jewish, Greek, or Egyptian. Ptolemy I and his successors–from Ptolemy II Philadelphus to Ptolemy XV Caesar, Cleopatra’s son and co-ruler from 44-30 BCE–were all equipped with Egyptian names but first and foremost used the name of Ptolemy, keeping the tradition established by the first Macedonian “pharaoh.” (28)

But, of all the Ptolemys, only Cleopatra bothered to learn Egyptian. Greek became and remained the official administrative language of Egypt throughout the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. Other than Cleopatra, all the Ptolemaic rulers used interpreters, although Egyptian priests were well-educated and could read and write Egyptian hieroglyphs (used for sacred texts), demotic Egyptian, and Greek. (29)

[M]any papyri, ostraca (sherds) and other important documents and decrees were written in two or rarely three languages or scripts, the most famous example of these being the Rosetta Stone which was discovered by troops of Napoleon in 1799. However, only two years later it came into British hands when the British army defeated the French in Egypt . . . , and was brought to the British museum where it is still displayed today. The inscriptions on the Rosetta Stone contain . . . virtually identical decrees [in Ancient Egyptian and Greek], issued by Egyptian priests on behalf of King Ptolemy V in Memphis in 196 BCE. . . . [T]he Ancient Egyptian text is expressed in hieroglyphs and Coptic, followed by a Greek translation . . . . The . . . decree honours the newly crowned King Ptolemy and expresses the priests’ gratitude . . . [for his] support of their temples and . . . tax concessions . . . . He did this, of course, in order to secure the support of this important Egyptian class. But it is not so much the content of the Rosetta Stone that made it famous; rather, it was its capacity to help decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs for the first time. . . . [U]ntil then, following the closure of the Pagan temples in late antiquity (fifth century CE) and the disappearance of the Egyptian priests, their meaning had been forgotten. The translation process was led by the French scholar Jean-François Champollion and took several years. Scholars had already started to decipher hieroglyphs but it was the Rosetta Stone with its Greek, Coptic, and hieroglyphic script that allowed for a full deciphering (29-30)

During the Ptolemaic period, Alexandria became a center of learning. It had the great library (“a place for scholars, poets, and historians from all over the Mediterranean to work and exchange ideas”). It produced a heliocentric model of the solar system (“forgotten during the Middle Ages and only rediscovered in the Renaissance by Copernicus”). It also produced the Septuagint, the translation of the Old Testament into Greek, albeit with many Egyptian loanwords. (31)

The next two articles in “Translation and Empire/s” concern the translation problems involved when the world-view, and therefore the language, of the colonized is very different from that of the colonizers. For example, Spanish versus the language of the indigenous Mapuche people in the south of Chileand Zapotec spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico,respectively.

Finally, there is an article on Shakespeare, once thought of explicitly as a tool of British imperial conquest–a means to create a “class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”The article explores what the bard’s place might be in contemporary India.10

I will end this column with a tri-lingual limerick, written by Arthur Graham, published on one of a series of coasters by Polyglot Press in Lexington, Kentucky, in 2018, slightly modified by me, and used here by permission of Arthur Graham:

Graphic Translation and Empire






1. Lewis, Bernard. “From Babel to Dragoman,” The London Times Literary Supplement (April 23, 1999), 12-14.

2. Schmidt, Samantha. “‘Countries that are Dirty Like Toilets,’ and Other Ways Trump’s Profanity Was Translated Abroad,” The Washington Post (January 12, 2018).

3. Bérengère Viennot interviewed in the January 2017 LA Review of Books, as quoted in In Other Words (Summer 2017), 4.

4. wa Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ. “Adventures in Translation,” In Other Words (Summer 2017), 9-18.

5. Bush, Ruth, Madhu Krishnan, and Kate Wallis, “Print Activism and Translating African Literature: Conversations at Writivism 2016,” In Other Words (Summer 2017), 19-26.

6. Steinhauer, Julietta. “Translating the Empire: Egypt Under the Ptolemies, ” In Other Words (Summer 2017), 27-32.

7. Kelly, James. “When North is No Longer North: Translating Mapuche Spacetime,” In Other Words (Summer 2017), 33-35.

8. Shook, David. “Pacific Standard Time,” In Other Words (Summer 2017), 36-38.

9. Lord Macaulay in Minute on Indian Education (1835), as quoted by Preti Taneja in reference 10 below.

10. Taneja, Preti. “How Dare She? Shakespeare’s King Lear in Contemporary India,” In Other Words (Summer 2017), 39-45.


Submit items for future columns via e-mail to mnh18@columbia.eduDiscussions of the translation of humor and examples thereof are preferred, but humorous anecdotes about translators, translations, and mistranslations are also welcome. Include copyright information and permission if relevant.

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